The covering letter will give an agent or editor the first clues (and they may not look further) that either a) you may have a great book and really know what you're doing or b) you can't write and / or are going to be too difficult to deal with, perhaps because you have completely the wrong attitude or level of understanding. If you make too many howlers in the covering letter, too many agents or editors will not look at your work. There's just too much competition out there for you to be able to afford to get this too wrong. So, while you'll hear of people getting published even after doing things wrong at this stage, that diminishes your chances hugely, especially if your book is not 100% gloriously saleable. Perfection is unattainable, but most of what agents and publishers receive is horribly short of perfection, which is why almost all of it is rejected summarily. I aim only to protect you from this.
Some of you may hate me soon. Especially newer followers of this blog or people who have just come across me without warning. (There absolutely should be a warning before entering the world of one so trenchant and crabbit, I know.) You need to understand that I genuinely care for the interests, hearts and souls of unpublished writers; you need to know that I share your pain and that I can do so from the horrible 21 year experience of suffering the same struggle until I suddenly broke through the peculiar barriers; you need to know that such was my desperation to get published that each time I used to read of someone having a "debut" novel published, I wanted to kill them, preferably with my bare hands after a substantial amount of torture.
The reason you need to know this is because you will otherwise think (in a few moments) that I am just laughing at unpublished writers. I am not. What I am laughing at is the worst of the appallingly misdirected, miswritten and misguided covering letters which still find their way onto the laptops and doormats of unlucky agents and editors. I am laughing partly because it is funny and partly because it is unnecessary - there's no excuse nowadays for this level of crappiness, now that good advice is out there. (Including on this blog, I venture to say - please see what I've written about covering letters here and here. And elsewhere, but that will do for now.)
May I now get on with appearing cruel? And will you forgive me? Please? It is all in the cause of education.
Right. Thing is, one of the perks of writing this blog is that agents and editors show me examples of the worst submissions they receive. And I feel I can't quote from them unless I disguise them a bit. Or a lot. So, I came up with a better idea. I decided to imagine I was an agent and to write an imaginary response to a generically awful covering letter.
So, I have written such a response. Every bit of it refers to an error that I have seen myself or know from a trustworthy source to have been made often. BUT, nothing in it relates to anything you blog-readers have sent me. Trust me: I'm a novelist. So, seriously do trust me: I would not betray you.
Anyway, on behalf of agents and editors everywhere, here is that letter. (In a moment or three.) And for those of you who have yet to see me wax spectacularly crabbit, please sit down, get some decent chocolate out and prepare yourselves.
You should also know that I toned this down (thereby sadly removing some humour) from my first version. I preferred my first version, but I should never use humour cruelly and I should maintain where possible a professional appearance.
I really think I should get on with it now, don't you?
I am afraid that I cannot offer to represent you, even for ready money. There may be people out there who would appreciate the "special" presents you sent, but I am afraid I am not one of them. In addition, I found your offer to visit my house and demonstrate your unusual talents somewhat off-putting, especially as I do have a young family. It is obviously sensible for a writer to have another career to provide an income, but I did find your supporting photos rather disconcerting and I suggest you restrict your personal information to relevant details.
As an aspiring writer, you made a number of errors in your approach. I hope you will not mind my pointing some of these out to you. You sneered at the potential readers of your work; you patronised an entire age group and showed your contempt of their reading power; the words "stupid" and "pathetic" do not sit well in this context; you similarly disparaged every author who has managed to become published through sheer talent and hard work; in short, you laid bare your contempt for readers, writers, and publishers. You appear not to understand the reasons why people choose to read at all and your utter ignorance of every step of the publishing process shone through as brightly as your lack of command of what I presume is your own language.
You do not need to tell me that your novel is "fiction" - I have yet to read a novel that wasn't. Yes, in answer to your question, I have heard the phrase "urban fantasy" and therefore do not need you to explain it to me. Nor do I need to be told what "YA" means, since that describes my own specialty. Leaving that aside, "6 - 18" is not a valid age group. Please allow me to decide whether your work has film potential; moreover, I think you are being somewhat premature suggesting actors who might take lead roles in the film version. There isn't going to be a film version, really. In fact, there isn't going to be a version at all.
You have a misguided view of your own writing ability. Normally, I would strongly recommend that authors did not tell me that they had shown their work to their children and that their children had loved it; in your case, on the other hand, I recommend you do show it to your children - it is entirely possible that they will be able to show you where you have gone wrong. No, your book is not going to "make us rich". No, we are not going to "take the publishing world by storm". No, they are not all waiting with "baited (sic) breath" for the arrival of your grim little tale on the bookshelves. No, you are absolutely not the "next sensation in British literature". You know how on the X-Factor there are always some deluded individuals who make complete fools of themselves and can't see how bad they are? I hope you get my point.
There are certain basic errors in your letter. You should always send the first three chapters, not random middle ones just because you are "working on something even more grity (sic) and exciting at the moment and just can't face typing the first chapters". You do need to obey the rules of apostrophes and avoid street slang in a formal letter. If you halved the number of clichés in one page, you would have improved the impression you made. Slightly. In this and many other ways, you failed to display even a vague competence in written, or indeed any, language.
There, that's got that off my chest. Of course, being a charming person who is kind to animals, I would never write such a letter, even if I were an agent, but it was fun to imagine, as long as I didn't have to imagine a real person receiving it. Really, if you ever see anyone about to make these mistakes, please stop them. You'll be doing everyone a favour, including the poor writer.I confess that I did begin to read your story, mainly because I had had a hard day and needed some light relief. I was not disappointed. I called my elderly neighbour over and we displayed signs of being extremely amused for at least five minutes before we got to the hand-written bit. I thought you said you'd sent this part of your MS because it was typed? Seriously, "Sir/Madam", (to use your own phrase), your story is probably the worst thing I have ever read, and that's including during the time when I was a Year 1 teacher. I am tempted to ask that perennial question: where do you get your ideas from?
In any case, your attitude to me, your readers and the rest of humanity leaves me with the vague impression that you and I would not get along. Having said that, even if you were charming, it would not alter the more important fact: you cannot write for toffee. I suppose I should give you credit for not having sent any toffee in your submission. It was about the only mistake you did not make. If you do not know what I mean by referring to toffee, I suggest that you read the excellent blog of Nicola Morgan. She has been lucid and persuasive on the subject of the risks of toffee in submissions to agents, and her blog contains many other perceptive gems which you would do well to note. She does go on about chocolate rather a lot, which I find a little trivial, but she is still worth heeding.
Yours bleakly,Desperelda Blogs.
The wonderful thing for you, though, is that such rubbish makes it that much easier to get to the top of the slippery slush-pile. So, maybe you should keep this wisdom to yourself...
Edited to add: Marion Gropen put this link to a blog post of hers in the comments below the original post and I thought I'd add it in. Thank you, Marion.
And now I'm running off to hide in case anyone is offended by the above. Can I also emphasise, for the record, that I know I made some of the mistakes myself when I was dismally failing to get published. I have on a couple of occasions admitted to the the awful truth that i once write a covering letter in coloured rhyme...